When technology firm OpenAI ousted its CEO Sam Altman last week with little warning and less explanation, it set off shockwaves throughout Silicon Valley and beyond. Late Tuesday, in a complete reversal, he rejoined the controversial firm he had helped found, effectively bouncing from the board some of the people who had fired him.
Altman has served as a poster boy of the company’s groundbreaking efforts in artificial intelligence, including its ChatGPT generative AI product. But the drama pushed a web of other characters key to AI or internet history into view of the public. Some have worked together for years and have invented some of the household name products of the internet.
What has made this tale so unusual and so magnetic? The speed at which it went down, the diversity and (relative) youth of the board of directors and the nature of the company — a non-profit thought to become a tremendously profitable one at one point. Marquee names like Elon Must and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella fueled interest, too, as did the long-standing friendships between some of the whiz-kid players.
But, perhaps most of all, there appears to be a moral, or at least procedural, split between some past and present OpenAI executives and board members over the considerable threat posed by the technology itself and the people who would control it.
With echoes of Shakespearean dramas as well as hit TV series such as “Game of Thrones,” “Billions” and “Succession,” here are some of the characters involved in the boardroom and backroom brawling at OpenAI.
Former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman became a household name over the past year as OpenAI’s ChatGPT gained 180 million users seemingly overnight, revolutionizing technology and threatening to turn some industries upside down. Altman, 38, spoke to Congress in May and said, AI technology “can go quite wrong, and we want to be vocal about that.”
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he dropped out of Stanford University to work on a location app called Loopt. That startup was in the first batch of eight at an accelerator called Y Combinator, along with Reddit and a company called Kiko co-founded by OpenAI’s interim head Emmett Shear. Before OpenAI, Altman was president of Y Combinator, mentoring a host of founders and expanding his network in Silicon Valley.
As CEO of Microsoft, a 49% stakeholder in OpenAI, Nadella could have been the biggest loser in Altman’s departure from OpenAI. Then, Nadella’s tweet Monday announcing a new AI division headed by former OpenAI co-founders made him, and Microsoft, a winner. Microsoft stock reached a record high on Monday following the announcement after dropping 1.7% in the immediate aftermath of Altman’s firing. With Altman back at OpenAI, its stock is back near an all time high over $379 a share. “We are encouraged by the changes to the OpenAI board,” he wrote on X on Wednesday.
Named by the OpenAI board as Altman’s interim successor on Friday, Murati was replaced by Shear before the weekend was done. After her short stint as interim CEO, Murati signed a letter along with an estimated 700 other OpenAI employees threatening to quit over Altman’s dismissal and calling for the resignation of the board.
Murati, 34, CTO of OpenAI, joined the company in 2018. The Albanian-born Murati is in charge of the distribution of image generator DALL-E and text-based ChatGPT. She graduated from Colby College and Dartmouth University and has worked at Tesla. “Mira has helped to scale the company from a startup to one of the most important AI companies in the world,” Nadella wrote in an essay about her for Time magazine in September.
In 2019, Brockman, Altman and Sutskever jointly formed OpenAI LP, a for-profit entity that exists within the larger nonprofit company’s structure, which helped take OpenAI to a proposed valuation of $90 billion in just a few years. Sutskever’s fate could be in jeopardy given his role in the board drama.
Sutskever is OpenAI’s chief scientist, co-founder and a board member who appears to have played an outsized role in Altman’s firing. Sutskever later signed the employee letter calling for the entire board to resign and for Altman and Brockman to return. On Monday, as news of the letter emerged, Sutskever posted an apology on X: “I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions,” he said. “I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company.” His future with the company now seems unclear.
D’Angelo joined OpenAI’s board in 2018 and will remain on it even after the upheaval. In high school at Phillips Exeter Academy, he developed music suggestion software along with other students including Mark Zuckerberg. After graduating from the California Institute of Technology, he worked at Facebook as chief technology officer and founded the questions and answers platform Quora in 2009. He was one of the OpenAI board members who voted to oust Altman.
D’Angelo has praised OpenAI’s unorthodox board structure (non-profit controlled with a for-profit entity within), telling Forbes in January, “my hope is that we can do a lot more good for the world than just become another corporation that gets that big.”
The new board chair at OpenAI, Bret Taylor, was formerly the chair of the board at Twitter that forced Elon Musk to make good on his acquisition attempt. Before that, Taylor was co-CEO at Salesforce and worked at Facebook, Google and other companies. He has two degrees in computer science from Stanford University.
Shear, 40-year-old co-founder of Amazon’s streaming service Twitch, announced Monday he would join OpenAI as interim CEO. He replaced Mira Murati, who was named interim CEO, and held the job for less than 48 hours, after Altman was fired. It’s unclear what his role will be now that Altman is back. A native of Seattle, Washington, and a graduate of Yale University, Shear was one of four co-founders of Justin.tv, an early precursor to Twitch built to livestream the life of Justin Kan, Shear’s childhood friend and classmate.
In 2011. Shear was also once a Microsoft intern — though it seems the now-CEO was not a fan. He tweeted in July, “When I was interning for Microsoft every paycheck felt like I was getting the payment for a little chunk of my soul in the mail.”
McCauley joined the board of OpenAI in 2018 and is chief executive officer of GeoSim Systems, a 3D city modeling company based in Israel. She once served as CEO of a robotics company called Fellow Robots and has been an adjunct senior management scientist at Rand Corporation. Married to actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, she serves on the advisory board of the Centre for the Governance of AI. McCauley has a bachelor’s from Bard College and an MBA from the University of Southern California.
Greg Brockman co-founded OpenAI and quit his role as President in protest after Altman’s firing and joined Microsoft Monday. Wednesday morning he said on X, “Returning to OpenAI & getting back to coding tonight.” His exact role is still unclear. Brockman grew up in North Dakota before attending Harvard University and MIT. He dropped out of MIT to work for Stripe, eventually becoming chief technology officer of the payment-processing firm. That startup received investment from Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and others in 2011. He left Stripe in 2015 to start OpenAI with Altman and Musk.
Toner joined AI’s board in 2021. She is a director of strategy and foundational research grants at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology and previously worked as a senior research analyst at Open Philanthropy, focusing on AI policy and strategy. She lived in Beijing and studied China’s AI ecosystem as a researcher with Centre for the Governance of AI, an organization where she serves on the advisory board. Toner has a bachelor’s in chemical engineering and a master’s in security studies from Georgetown.
Supporting cast of characters
Kushner heads VC firm Thrive Capital and is a major tech investor. Thrive was reportedly leading a funding round in October to buy OpenAI shares at a price that would value the company at $80 billion, according to Crunchbase and other reports. That funding would also have valued shares that OpenAI employees may receive as compensation. Kushner is the brother of Jared Kushner and husband of supermodel Karlie Kloss. His father, Charles Kushner, was pardoned by then-president Donald Trump in 2020 after pleading guilty to tax evasion and making illegal campaign donations. Kushner co-founded Oscar Health and is a minority owner of the Memphis Grizzlies. He’s an alumnus of Harvard College and Harvard Business School.
Summers is an economist who served in the Obama and Clinton administrations including as a Treasury Secretary. He joined the OpenAI board on Wednesday as the company welcomed back Altman and others. Summers brings leadership experience from politics, corporate boards and having served as former president of Harvard University.
Another previous OpenAI board member, Zilis exited in March. The director at Neuralink, Musk’s brain implant start-up, is the mother of two children with the billionaire, according to Musk biographer Walter Isaacson. In September, she joined the board of directors of Shield AI, a defense technology company building AI pilot technology for aircraft. Born in Canada, Zilis graduated from Yale University.
After joining the OpenAI board in 2021, Hurd was the third director to exit in 2023. He left because he was running for President of the United States as a Republican. He dropped out of the race in October and endorsed Nikki Haley. A former Texas congressman and CIA officer, Hurd joined OpenAI while working at investment bank Allen & Company and was seen as bringing public policy expertise. Hurd was born and raised in Texas and graduated from Texas A&M University, where he majored in computer science and was elected student body president.
LinkedIn co-founder Hoffman left OpenAI’s board in March citing conflicts of interest with other AI ventures. Just two months later, his company Inflection AI unveiled a ChatGPT-like chatbot named Pi. Hoffman was also an early investor in OpenAI. Hoffman and Musk were part of the PayPal founding team before Hoffman became co-founder, CEO and Chairman of LinkedIn. He’s been a tech investor with several firms including a partner at Greylock Partners for the past 14 years. He’s on the board of several companies including Microsoft. He has a bachelor’s from Stanford University and a master’s from Oxford in philosophy.
Musk, a co-founder and previous board member of OpenAI, left in 2018 citing a conflict of interest with Tesla. Musk has since expressed safety concerns over AI’s threat to society and the possibility that Microsoft would take over the company. Musk, one of the richest people in the world, leads several companies including SpaceX, Tesla, the Boring Company, and the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter). Musk is connected to many characters in the OpenAI drama and has publicly feuded with Altman about the future of AI. “What tangled webs we weave,” he wrote on X, shortly after Altman was announced back at OpenAI early Wednesday morning.
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